( This profile was published in The Independent in 2000). When she was asked recently for her all-time favourite Christmas TV moment, Victoria Wood chose the celebrated Morecambe and Wise sketch featuring Andre Previn. ‘It was so well written’, she said. ‘And a rare example of a celebrity playing himself successfully’. Both the choice and the reason for it, reveal much about the comedienne herself. Victoria Wood has been playing the role of Victoria Wood the celebrity since the early-Eighties when, after many a false dawn, her television career finally pulled out of the siding in which it had stalled in the mid-Seventies. From the BBC series Wood & Walters onward, she began to secure a place in the nation’s heart and psyche - or at least her brand of comic writing found a home and settled down. The triumphs and the trophies followed swiftly. The most recent being yet another statuette from The British Comedy Awards, this month. Perhaps the greater accolade is that her Christmas specials have became almost as big a tradition as Eric & Ernie’s festive outings. Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings is this year’s offering. It’s a departure in that it features a cast of big names alongside her regular company, in parodies of films and dramas traditionally shown at Christmas. Pastiche and celebrity are themes that dominate the output of lesser comedians like French & Saunders, almost as a distraction from the weak writing and limited performances of the main duo. In Wood’s hands we can expect to see Bob Monkhouse, Derek Jacobi and Robert Lynsey attached to the standard of writing that made Previn’s appearance on Morecambe & Wise so appealing to her.
Ultimately,Victoria Wood’s recent comedy award doesn’t amount to much with the viewer, and maybe, if she’s honest, with Wood herself. Not when you consider much of the competition, the regularity with which these trophies are dished out, and the fact that a televised ceremony celebrating comedy is almost as desperate a concept as one that commemorates soaps or lifestyle shows. It’s the type of event at which Victoria Wood has looked most ill at ease. In the past she could be found sprinting to the rostrum, and flicking back her hair as when she arrives on stage for her stand-up routine, bewildered at being forced to be herself up there. In this she is reminiscent of Ronnie Barker. Shy, private, and a certain type of celebrity. One that gives out only the requisite amount of information necessary for the public persona attached to their act. There are no Hello! spreads, and she was rumoured to be less than happy when an image of her youngest child Henry - from a charity calender - found its way into Tatler.
Like Barker, her writing has been at its best when exposing the oddness within the language of the everyday, and moving in on dialects and wordplay. Her long-term producer Geoff Posner has said that she ‘manages to examine people talking and capture speech patterns and subjects that are everyday, but hysterical at the same time’. Whereas Barker is a great comic actor at his best when partnered with former variety comic Ronnie Corbett, Wood has had some of her finest moments as the comedienne coupled with Julie Walters, a great comic actress. The pair first met when Wood failed an audition for the drama course at Manchester Polytechnic.
Ronnie Barker once said the hardest entrance he had to make was when he was required to walk on stage as himself. He needed to become what he thought people expected Ronnie Barker to be, in order to be comfortable. You sense this to be true of Wood in the moment when she realises that dinnerladies, or her one woman show, or her longevity, has won her yet another award. The eyes become big and Bambi-like, the smile broadens, as Victoria Wood the celebrity bounces into action. For many years, when filmed at celebrity shindigs, Wood dismissed calls for an acceptance speech with an embarrassed wave. It was as though she had been forced to make a show of herself at a works outing that she would rather have passed on. When you cast an eye over many of the hangers-on and micro-celebrities present at the comedy awards, and witness the likes of Michael Barrymore cracking jokes about industry insiders, you realise how alien this in-house, backslapping occasion is to most viewers. Indeed, you wonder how this Masonic-like meeting of a metropolitan elite must seem to those watching in the places that have been namechecked in many a Victoria Wood sketch: Cheadle, Chorlton, and perhaps, even Kirkcudbright.
Both of these worlds have proved key to Victoria Wood’s comedy in the past, and often it has been the meeting of the two that has provided her with her best and most memorablematerial. It was most prominent in the BBC screenplay Pat & Margaret, where Wood’s down-to-earth waitress is united with her long lost sister - now a major a soap celebrity - much to the chagrin of the both of them, by the television show Magic Moments.
Nowadays, the two subjects that characterise television are those of the small screen turning the camera on itself (the sitcoms and comedies that go behind-the-scenes), and of television making stars of members of the public in the name popular factual programming. It is now impossible to parody these genres successfully. But it was from these themes, in the Eighties with As Seen On TV, that Victoria Wood created some classic TV comedy. The aping of the documentary form was at its best in A Fairly Ordinary Man, and The Making Of Acorn Antiques. ‘I suppose I thought why me?’, bleats Jim Broadbent’s character in the former, as a television crew make him the subject of a nascent docu-soap. He works as a telephone deodoriser, and has been engaged to his fiancee for sixteen years. The characters are what was by then familiar Wood territory. She herself is cast as the frumpy sister with the plaster on the glasses. A portrait of Thora Hird takes pride of place alongside that of Jesus Christ in the living room. But the humour extracted from the world is a distant relative to that of The Royle Family. It’s a world that reports on plastic bags in kitchen drawers, tissues under pillows, ordering the other menu in foreign restaurants, and kickstarting conversations with the word ‘grouting’. It’s a comedy that doesn’t rely entirely on references to brand names for a punchline, in order to eavesdrop on the everyday. Whilst Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash have channelled the experience of their background and their class into their beloved creation, Victoria Wood, the product of a middle class home, has always regarded herself largely as an interloper. Her late father was an insurance salesman, and semi-professional pianist, who spent his evenings writing. Her mother put herself through university. Wood wasn’t exactly Nell Dunn leaving the toffs for the tearaways to write about the working class in Up The Junction, but she always had a brilliant ear for the dialogue of a particular community. The language that sometimes only a perceptive outsider can summarise. You always felt with her, that the references to Gardener’s Question Time, brass bands, and amateur dramatics were the greater clue to her own background. It was perhaps best summed up in the monologues created for Patricia Routledge as Kitty: ‘The Rummy Club Sound of Music opens tonight. I’m prompter - and our Mother Superior’s on tablets so every other rehearsal it’s been ‘Climb Every What Is It?’
Unlike many of the current pretenders to Wood’s throne, she came of age wanting to be a comedienne. It began from the age of six, having seen Joyce Grenfell. She was apparently a solitary child who stayed in her room stuffing herself with sweets whilst her elder sisters hit the town. Wood said recently that growing up, she had the things that make someone become a writer: she was lonely, bored and isolated. Being blessed with that English, northern sensibility that links her with Alan Bennett, and Morrissey, it was inevitable that wit would dominate the writing.
Of course, she first came to prominence in the talent show New Faces in the mid-Seventies. She sang. She sang comedy songs. Back then, if you were a female seated at the piano who was funnier than Lynsey De Paul, and thinner than Mrs Mills, dressed in dungarees and singing comedy songs, where did you go? That’s Life, that’s where. A filler, stage left, providing topical songs in the slot reserved for folksy-types that wore novelty socks and worked on children’s shows. She still sings, and it’s the weakest link in her act. Partly because of the brilliance of the sketches and her stand-up monologues; partly because in spite of the wit of the lyrics, the modern comedy song itself has never recovered from its relationship with Radio 2 and The Grumbleweeds. It was when Wood stumbled on a talent for sketch writing, and moved from the protective shelter of the piano to centre stage that she began to establish herself. The change came after she toured with comedian John Dowie in the fringe revue Funny Turns, in the late-Seventies. Although her career has continued to surpass that of many a comedian that rose on the back of the ‘alternative’ wave of the Eighties, she has much in common with the showbusiness tradition that produced her hero of comedy, Ken Dodd. After her early TV success, she had a stint of the dole and piano playing on a seaside pier or two. It was perhaps these biographical details that inspired her first television play Talent.
Just as she was something of an interloper, and hard to pigeon-hole in showbusiness, there was a feeling that she remained slightly lonely, odd, and isolated within the social world of television celebrities. It’s telling that her depiction of northern characters are often packaged with a sprinkling of poignancy, compassion and pathos, whilst those in the world of television are drawn with a top note of shallowness and a layer of stupidity. This was apparent in the early sketches that parodied the inanity of the kind of consumer shows and daytime programmes on which Wood once performed, Acorn Antiques, and of best of all, Maggie Steed’s producer Marion Clune in The Making of : ‘this AIDS idea has been an itsy bit overplayed - let’s box a wee bit dangerous - let’s really go for it - earwax - I’ve never seen it tackled - it’s an issue, it’s heath....’
Wood appeared to be content socialising within a kind of northern cafe society that drifted towards the Giggleswick cottage of the late Russell Harty. It consisted of the former Coronation Street actresses that have found their second wind within the ensemble of regulars in Victoria Wood series. Some of whom feature in dinnerladies. It was the sitcom that Wood had always wanted to write. And although it was a return to a traditional format and familiar territory it was far superior to Ben Elton’s attempt to rejuvenate the form with The Thin Blue Line.
In the Nineties, Wood and her husband, Geoffrey Durham, moved from their home just outside Morecambe to north London, with their two young children. They wanted to cut down on travelling, be closer to the BBC, and not have their offspring become the village curiosities because of their mother’s fame. Shortly afterwards there was, momentarily, a hint of a dip in the sharpness of Wood’s work. It looked as if she might, like many of her contemporaries, write comedy around and about the exclusive showbusiness world in which they operate. We feared that she may become something of a Hampstead earth-mother. She underwent counselling, talked a lot about pollution, the right food for the children, and made jokes about Land Rovers on Hampstead high street during the school run. But then, in her stand-up shows in the late-Nineties, there was always the odd line revealing that she could still cast a glance to the minutiae of the world that exists beyond the media class (how the boyfriend thatvisits the family home always stays in the spare room with the ironing board). Eventually she returned to it again in her TV work, with the writing of dinnerladies.
After more than 20 years as a celebrity, she now seems less like an interloper in showbusiness, and more like someone who enjoys the success and the trappings, but not the company of those that snuggle up with the title of celebrity. It’s not unlike the relationship that one of her characters said that their mother had with Spain: ‘She likes the majesty and grandeur of the landscape, but she’s not keen on the bacon’.